CC Africa, Sabi Sands Game Reserve, Exeter Leadwood Lodge

Today would be our last day in the bush and we were hopeful of another morning drive filled with strong impressions for the eyes and ears. We were not disappointed as, before the Land Rover pulled out from the parking area, our tracker, Chris, saw a set of tracks belonging to a feline we had been seeking for the last 3 days: the leopard.

This occurrence was typical of my past trips to the bush where hours of energy and effort can be mightily expended to find something of particular interest yet the result is void of the desired outcome. Then, when you least expect it, the surprise you have been seeking appears before you’ve requested it.

Per Chris and Brendan, the tracks were a few hours old, at most. This news meant our leopard was nearby. Brendan had told us upon our arrival that their leopard sightings had dropped recently due to one female having lost her three cubs to hyenas recently and another male had been acting quite skittish lately, avoiding the game viewing vehicles when he heard the engine. Nonetheless, we started off the drive with great anticipation.

Although Chris is the best set of eyes on the vehicle for finding animals, Brendan reminded us all to keep our eyes open for animals or signs we may pick up. No false sighting was looked upon poorly. We found ourselves only 500 yards from the lodge when Brian spoke from the seat behind me, “Something big is on that rock in the creek”. Given my own inability to see anything substantive in my past game drives, I was doubtful that Brian, with one game drive behind him, found anything but a shadow. But, oh how I was wrong.

Brendan backed up the vehicle and there, sitting in a regal pose like the Sphinx, sat a mature male leopard in the creek bed below. My hidden desire would have been to find the leopard on our last game drive so as to offer my mother the opportunity to see what I believe to be the most impressive cat in the wild. To have met the goal, so quickly this morning and with the eyesight of our new American friend, I could not have created a story more ripe for classification as fiction.

Neither Brendan nor Chris could restrain their enthusiasm. Brendan offered affirmation to Brian that his find was one he had never seen so well executed by a guest. As we were beginning our descent into the creek bed, in typical safari experience to give credence to the idiom that “when it rains, it pours”, we were being closely watched by an inquisitive giraffe but a few meters in front of us. He towered over us like an inspector, curious as to our anxious adventure down the slope. Brendan guided the vehicle through thick brush, knocking down bushes and small trees easily with the Land Rover, to place us at the base of a 10 foots tall granite boulder the size of a basketball court and exposed to the morning sun. Atop its crest sat a male leopard, as unconcerned about our presence of but 15 feet away as he would have been to an acacia bush blowing in the breeze.

What a sight. The coat of the leopard is a mix of golden yellow adorned with black spots with specs of white, so sharp, they look like batteries are charging their brightness. All this beauty is draped across the body of an animal whose jaws can crush the skull of a man with one bite and whose strength is so great it can take twice its body weight (about 200 pounds for a big male) straight up the trunk of a tree and into the canopy to eat at a later time. All I could hear were the cameras starting to click as this sighting was going to produce something worthy of us all to hang on the wall.

As I reflect back on the wonderful leopard sighting we had this morning, I have to also pass on a wonderful example of what the safari experience means to me. As a person who is fortunate enough to have been on a number of safari treks through the bush of South Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, I enjoy watching guests take from the bush what they enjoy the most. As long as the participants are sincere in their interests, whether they be big cats, elephants, birds or something else, I love seeing them have the opportunity to bring their desires to fruition. I was reminded of this feeling when my mother, after watching the leopard with excitement until he walked off through the thicket, turned to the ranger and asked if we could go back to see the giraffe again. I loved that request from her, as most people, while liking to watch the giraffe for a short while, would rather chase the big cats or a herd of elephant. My mother’s attraction to the soft gait and gentle expression of the giraffe was what she wanted to see over and over again. She lit up like a candle whenever we saw a giraffe.

To each, his own. That is the beauty of the safari experience. The drives through the African bush change everyday and given enough time, most everyone gets to take part in a simple pleasure, known or unknown, that has eluded them for years. The Discovery Channel, Animal Planet and National Geographic do wonderful things to feed the curiosity of those of us living far outside the realm of nature on a day to day basis.

But as Marvin Gaye sang in the 1960’s, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing”.

This safari experience was something I wanted to happen for my mother. I tip my hat to Brendan, Chris and Kelli for making it picture perfect.